An avid supporter of ride-hailing technology, Yuanhang Yang is pretty excited for companies like Uber to make their debut in Vancouver.
But after he said the company mysteriously banned him from its service — with no explanation — he feels like he’s been taken for a ride.
“They shouldn’t be able to restrict access to this kind of public service to members … at their sole discretion, especially when they don’t provide you with any explanation at all, when there isn’t any appeal process,” Yang said.
“With great power comes great responsibility and if they are becoming a public service, I think companies like Uber should take their social responsibility a little bit more.”
Yang said the trouble began on Sept. 26 when he was visiting Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, and needed a ride.
Yang had an Uber account that he used while living in Montreal. He deleted it when he moved to Vancouver — where ride-hailing does not yet legally exist — in 2017 because he felt it would better protect his personal data.
When the 25-year-old software product manager tried to book his ride in Mississauga, he was given a notice that his account was disabled. He contacted Uber customer support through the in-app messaging system, and an agent told him the account was disabled as a precaution but was now re-activated.
He tried to book twice more but each time Uber disabled his account.
Then he tried unsuccessfully once more, then once more contacted customer support, which told him his account was suspended for violating the company’s terms and conditions.
He contacted the company through the app, via Facebook Messenger and email to find out why. He also visited the company’s office in Vancouver but no one would tell him why the account was banned.
After CBC News made inquiries into his case the company admitted its security systems mistakenly detected “suspicious behaviour” by Yang and put a hold on the account. It said the situation is an anomaly, and it is apologizing to him.
But Yang says the company can do better, and a researcher says his case illustrates the perils of the influence of algorithms on mobility.
In a statement, Uber said the company is working with Yang to understand the situation.
“Our security systems are constantly monitoring for suspicious behaviour to protect our users from fraud,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.
“In certain cases, the system will flag activity for additional review by our experts, and we place the account on hold while we complete an investigation.”
Uber did not explain what Yang did to trigger the security response and did not answer questions about the lack of explanation to Yang or what their investigation might entail.
Yang said an Uber employee working with the engineering team told him last week his account should now be working but as of Thursday afternoon that doesn’t seem to be the case, he reported.
Taxi refusals limited in B.C.
One of those rules expands the role of the provincial Passenger Transportation Branch. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation said if Yang’s problem happened in B.C., he could complain to the branch.
“The branch has the ability to impose fines and administrative penalties for trip refusals or restrictions,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
In Metro Vancouver, the Taxi Bill of Rights strictly limits the circumstances under which a cab driver can refuse service to a passenger, such as if they are threatening the driver’s safety or if they are disorderly or smoking.
Carolyn Bauer, general manager of Yellow Cab and spokesperson for the Vancouver Taxi Association, said the branch’s complaint process is important to ensuring a level playing field.
“Ride-share companies are left on their own to answer complaints to consumers [elsewhere],” Bauer said. “And if they don’t want to phone them back, then they don’t get any answers.”
Garland Chow, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, said a case like Yang’s illustrates the dangers of letting algorithms decide who does and doesn’t get a ride. Chow was a consultant for the taxi association in 2015.
“The [ride-hailing] model, the way it is set up, is inherently discriminatory,” Chow said, referencing reports of some ride-hailing companies allowing drivers to rank passengers or refuse service for arbitrary reasons, such as a too-short and therefore unprofitable trip.
Yang likely won’t be in B.C. when ride-hailing hits the road: he is about to move to Seattle for a job opportunity.
Uber is well established in that city, and he’s hoping he’ll be able to use the service without issue.